17 Foods that fight disease and increase the quality of life
Fruits and vegetables are great for your health—but some fresh foods are more powerful than others. Super foods have more than their fair share of vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting nutrients. Pack your meals with a nutritional punch by adding these wholesome choices to your diet.
Why they’re super: One cup of alfalfa sprouts has less than 10 calories, is virtually fat-free, and contains phytochemicals called saponins, which may protect against cancer and help lower cholesterol.
How to enjoy them: Enjoy their fresh, earthy crunch in salads or sandwiches, or atop a lean turkey or veggie burger.
Why they’re super: Apples are the richest fruit source of pectin, a soluble fiber that has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, decrease the risk of colon and breast cancers, and maybe even lessen the severity of diabetes.
How to enjoy them: Try throwing a few slices on your favorite sandwich or toss with field greens, toasted pecans, and a light vinaigrette for a delicious salad. With so many varieties available, you’ll never get bored finding new ways to incorporate them into your daily diet.
Why they’re super: Just one half of a medium-size avocado contains more than 4 grams of fiber and 15% of your recommended daily folate intake. Cholesterol-free and rich in monounsaturated fats and potassium, avocados are also a powerhouse for heart health.
How to enjoy them: Use avocados as the base for a creamy homemade sandwich spread, or add a few chunks to your favorite salsa for a simple and delicious way to dress up grilled chicken or fish.
Why they’re super: Beets are loaded with antioxidants and have been found to protect against cancer, heart disease, and inflammation. Naturally sweet and full of fiber and vitamin C, beets make a delicious and nutrient-packed addition to any meal.
How to enjoy them: Try finely grated raw beets in your salads or roast them along with sweet potatoes and parsnips for a colorful and flavorful side-dish—just keep in mind that certain cooking methods (like boiling) may decrease their nutritional value. And don’t forget about the leafy green tops, which are rich in iron and folate, and can be prepared much like their cousins, Swiss chard and spinach.
Why they’re super: Cranberries are renowned for protecting against urinary tract infections, but did you also know they may improve blood cholesterol and aid in recovery from strokes? Cranberry juice has also been shown to make cancer drugs more potent.
How to enjoy them: Although available frozen year-round, enjoy these tart and tangy berries fresh during their peak season from October through December.
Why it’s super: Not only does flaxseed lower blood cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart attack, but it is also a rich source of lignan, a powerful antioxidant that may be a powerful ally against disease and certain cancers, especially breast cancer. Just 2 tablespoons of ground seeds (which are digested more efficiently than whole seeds) contain about 20% of the recommended daily fiber* intake and more than 100% of the recommended intake for inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids.
How to enjoy it: Add ground flaxseed to baked goods for a nutty flavor or sprinkle it on top of your favorite cereal. It’s also delicious when blended with yogurt and fresh fruit for a tasty smoothie.
Why they’re super: Just one medium orange (think tennis ball) supplies all your daily vitamin C, which is a dynamite immunity booster and cancer fighter. And consuming vitamin C is best done in its natural form: Italian researchers also found that test subjects had greater antioxidant protection after drinking orange juice versus vitamin C–fortified water. Plus, this sweet and tangy fruit is a good source of fiber, potassium, calcium, folate, and other B vitamins.
How to enjoy them: The tangy taste of oranges makes a great combination with other strong flavors, such as ginger and honey. Put them on salads, or use them in marinades and sauces for meats.
Why they’re super: Trying to get more vitamin C in your diet? One cup of papaya cubes supplies more than 100% of your daily requirement, as well as a hefty dose of potassium and folate. It is also a good source of vitamins A and E, two powerful antioxidants that protect against heart disease and colon cancer.
How to enjoy them: Savor the rich, buttery flesh of this tropical fruit in smoothies and salads, or simply scoop it out of the shell with a spoon.
Why they’re super: This hearty, fiber-rich squash is packed with beta-carotene (converted to vitamin A in the body), which reduces the risk of developing lung cancer. The antioxidant activity of this vitamin combined with potassium, which may help prevent high blood pressure, makes it a nutritional superstar.
How to enjoy them: If you prepare a whole squash, toast the seeds for a delicious snack containing heart-healthy fats. The sweet taste and moist texture makes it ideal for desserts.
Why it’s super: Packed with a variety of nutrients, including iron and copper, it’s no wonder the Incas deemed this ancient seed “the mother of all grains.” Quinoa contains all the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein (perfect for vegans and vegetarians). It is also a great source of magnesium, which relaxes blood vessels and has been found to reduce the frequency of migraines. Researchers have found that consuming dietary fiber, specifically from whole-grain products such as quinoa, reduces the risk of high blood pressure and heart attack.
How to enjoy it: Keep your ticker in top shape by substituting quinoa for rice or pasta in your next meal. It makes a great base for seafood dishes and mixes well with beans.
Why they’re super: Tart, sweet, and incredibly juicy, just one half cup of these berries provides a whopping 4 grams of fiber and more than 25% of the daily recommended intake for both vitamin C and manganese. Raspberries also contain a powerful arsenal of antioxidants, including members of the anthocyanin family, which give raspberries their ruby-red hue and antimicrobial properties.
How to enjoy them: Try a few berries with your morning cereal or use them to add flavor to a green salad.
Why it’s super: Powerful antioxidants in spinach have been found to combat a variety of cancers, including ovarian, breast, and colon cancers. And it’s good for the noggin: Research indicates that spinach reduces the decline in brain function associated with aging and protects the heart from cardiovascular disease. Although it contains relatively high amounts of iron and calcium, oxalate compounds bind to these minerals and diminish their absorption.
How to enjoy it: Spinach has a mild flavor, so spice it up with garlic, olive oil, and onions.
Why they’re super: Need a beta-carotene fix? Just one medium sweet potato packs over four times the recommended daily amount. These tasty tubers are also rich in potassium, inflammation-fighting vitamin C, and vitamin B6, which may prevent clogged arteries.
How to enjoy them: Boiling sweet potatoes may cause some of the water-soluble vitamins to leach out, so try them baked, roasted, or cubed, and added to soups or stews. If you need a boost of fiber, make sure to leave the skins on.
Why it’s super: A 4-ounce portion of turkey breast meat contains almost 50% of your daily selenium, a trace mineral that plays essential roles in immune function and antioxidant defense. Despite the claim that turkey meat causes drowsiness during the holidays, it actually contains high amounts of niacin and vitamin B6, which are important for efficient energy production and blood-sugar regulation.
How to enjoy it: If you roast a whole bird, make sure to remove any skin, which is full of saturated fat; try substituting ground all-white-meat turkey breast for ground beef in your favorite hamburger recipe.
Why they’re super: One-quarter cup of walnuts supplies 90% of the daily recommended amount of omega-3 fatty acids, which aid in everything from maintaining cognitive function, to improving cholesterol and blood pressure.
How to enjoy them: Toss a few toasted walnut halves on your oatmeal (another heart-healthy superfood) or try them on your favorite salad for a tasty crunch.
Why it’s super: Just 1 cup of watercress supplies nearly 100% of a woman’s recommended daily amount of vitamin K, which has been shown to prevent hardening of the arteries and is essential for strong bones. It is also a good source of vitamin A, a potent antioxidant.
How to enjoy it: Try these peppery leaves in place of lettuce in salads or sandwiches, or toss them in a quick stir-fry or soup.
Why it’s super: Yogurt contains probiotics, which are bacteria that live in the intestine, aid in digestion, boost the immune system, diminish bad breath, and are even associated with longer life spans. A 1-cup serving also supplies one-third of your daily calcium requirement, as well as 14 grams of satisfying protein.
How to enjoy it: Opt for low-fat or nonfat versions to minimize saturated fat, and try substituting plain yogurt for a healthier alternative to sour cream. Lactose intolerant? Look for soy or rice milk varieties.
BONE DENSITY HEALTH
Your diet can play a role in sapping bone strength. Some foods actually leach the minerals right out of the bone, or they block the bone’s ability to regrow.
Here, the six biggest bone-sappers:
Salt saps calcium from the bones, weakening them over time. For every 2,300 milligrams of sodium you take in, you lose about 40 milligrams of calcium, dietitians say. One study compared postmenopausal women who ate a high-salt diet with those who didn’t, and the ones who ate a lot of salt lost more bone minerals. Our American diet is unusually salt-heavy; most of us ingest double the 2,300 milligrams of salt we should get in a day, according to the 2005 federal dietary guidelines.
What to do: The quickest, most efficient way to cut salt intake is to avoid processed foods. Research shows that most Americans get 75 percent of their sodium not from table salt but from processed food. Key foods to avoid include processed and deli meats, frozen meals, canned soup, pizza, fast food such as burgers and fries, and canned vegetables.
Soft drinks pose a double-whammy danger to bones. The fizziness in carbonated drinks often comes from phosphoric acid, which ups the rate at which calcium is excreted in the urine. Meanwhile, of course, soft drinks fill you up and satisfy your thirst without providing any of the nutrients you might get from milk or juice.
What to do: When you’re tempted to reach for a cola, instead try milk, calcium- and vitamin D-fortified orange juice, or a fruit smoothie made with yogurt. Or just drink water when you’re thirsty, and eat a diet high in bone-building nutrients.
The numbers for caffeine aren’t as bad as for salt, but caffeine’s action is similar, leaching calcium from bones. For every 100 milligrams of caffeine (the amount in a small to medium-sized cup of coffee), you lose 6 milligrams of calcium. That’s not a lot, but it can become a problem if you tend to substitute caffeine-containing drinks like iced tea and coffee for beverages that are healthy for bones, like milk and fortified juice.
What to do: Limit yourself to one or two cups of coffee in the morning, then switch to other drinks that don’t have caffeine’s bone-sapping action. Adding milk to your coffee helps to offset the problem, of course.
In the case of vitamin A, recent research is proving that you really can get too much of a good thing. Found in eggs, full-fat dairy, liver, and vitamin-fortified foods, vitamin A is important for vision and the immune system. But the American diet is naturally high in vitamin A, and most multivitamins also contain vitamin A. So it’s possible to get much more than the recommended allotment of 5,000 IUs (international units) a day—which many experts think is too high anyway.
Postmenopausal women, in particular, seem to be susceptible to vitamin A overload. Studies show that women whose intake was higher than 5,000 IUs had more than double the fracture rate of women whose intake was less than 1,600 IUs a day.
What to do: Switch to low-fat or nonfat dairy products only, and eat egg whites rather than whole eggs (all the vitamin A is in the yolk). Also check your multivitamin, and if it’s high in vitamin A, switch to one that isn’t.
Think of alcohol as a calcium-blocker; it prevents the bone-building minerals you eat from being absorbed. And heavy drinking disrupts the bone remodeling process by preventing osteoblasts, the bone-building cells, from doing their job. So not only do bones become weaker, but when you do suffer a fracture, alcohol can interfere with healing.
What to do: Limit your drinking to one drink a day, whether that’s wine, beer, or hard alcohol.
Recent studies have found that the process of hydrogenation, which turns liquid vegetable oil into the solid oils used in commercial baking, destroys the vitamin K naturally found in the oils. Vitamin K is essential for strong bones, and vegetable oils such as canola and olive oil are the second-best dietary source of this key nutrient, after green leafy vegetables. However, the amounts of vitamin K we’re talking about are tiny here—one tablespoon of canola oil has 20 micrograms of K, and one tablespoon of olive oil has 6 micrograms, as compared with 120 micrograms in a serving of spinach.
What to do: If you’re eating your greens, you don’t need to worry about this too much. If you’re a big lover of baked goods like muffins and cookies, bake at home using canola oil when possible, and read labels to avoid hydrogenated oils.